Humans are hardwired to care about what other people think about us. It has been shown in study after study. It is deeply human to worry about our image. Research has shown that even four and five years olds are aware that other people are evaluating them and are sensitive to how they are being perceived. A recent study by researchers at Emory University suggests that children as young as toddlers are sensitive to how they are being viewed by others and will modify their behavior accordingly. It is important to know that caring about image is part of our kids’ two year old development and how that affects them in the long run.
Two Year Old Development
All the parenting books and websites list those two year old development milestones categories that most parents are used to seeing – motor skills, behavior (hello, terrible twos!), language skills, average height and weight, and the typical social skills they are starting to exhibit. When it comes to social development, the milestones for two year old development usually include things like being able to engage in parallel play, becoming more socially interactive, having difficulty taking another child’s perspective, and beginning to imitate their parents and other people around them (think putting toys into the toybox after watching mom do it).
The one thing that these lists leave out is the fact that toddlers are already becoming sensitive to how they are being evaluated by those around them. By two years old, children are already seeking approval from the adults in their lives. In the Emory University study, a researcher showed toddlers how to use a remote to operate a remote-controlled robot. The researcher then either watched the toddlers with a neutral expression or turned away and pretended to read a magazine. Consistently, the children would use the remote more cautiously when being watched than when the researcher was not watching.
In a second experiment, the researcher used two different remotes when showing the toddlers how to use the robot. The researcher would smile and say something like, “Wow! Isn’t that great?” when using the first remote. Then, when using the second remote, the researcher would frown and say things like, “Uh oh! Oh no!” After inviting the toddlers to play with the robot, the researcher would again either watch or turn to the magazine. In this second experiment, the toddlers (again, pretty consistently) pressed the buttons on the remote that the researcher reacted to positively significantly more when they were being watched and used the remote that had the negative response more when they were not being watched.
This seems to go right along with their ability to mimic their parents or older siblings. It is important to understand this part of two year old development because it means that at least some of the time when toddlers are imitating what they see their parents do, they are doing it because they think that it will please their parents. It is not simply just mimicking for fun or to learn how to do something. The motivation behind some of this imitation is that they are concerned about how they are being seen by their parents.
Why Image Awareness Is Important
It is important to know that toddlers are already aware of how they are being perceived. They are not just aware, but they are already seeking to give off a positive image. In the Emory University study, the toddlers more carefully used the remote when being watched in the first experiment and then used the remote that had generated a positive response from the researcher when being watched. In the reverse, when they were not being watched, they used the remote with less reservation or the remote that generated the researcher’s negative response when they were not being watched.
What are the implications of two year old development involving this kind of image awareness? It means that by two years old, children are learning to behave when they know they are being watched. They want to be perceived positively. So toddlers are aware that when they do something that someone else thinks is favorable, they will be viewed favorably. This milestone in two year old development can be a great tool for parents. It can be used to teach children the right choices and the way to behave in certain situations.
On the other side of the coin, when they think they can get away with it and no one is paying attention, toddlers are not worried about making a choice that is not as favorable or that would not garner positive thoughts from a grownup. So when a toddler knows someone is not paying attention, they are less likely to make the better choice. Or at least they are likely to spend some time exploring the less favorable choices.
Too much time paying attention to something else – like a magazine, the television, or a cell phone – means more opportunities for toddlers to choose less favorable behaviors. Later on in life that could equal a complete lack of caring what other people think about them, which is not the most favorable when we live in a world where we have to get along and cooperate with others a lot of the time (think work and school).
However, it does not hurt to give toddlers some time without direct attention. They need a chance to explore those other choices – when they do not create a dangerous situation. Parents do not want to raise children who care so much what other people think about them that they suffer from social anxiety or seek approval constantly. Children need the chance to figure things out and to explore choices both good and bad.
Two year old development is full of so many milestones. Toddlers seem to be changing constantly. It is sad that they are no longer the little babies they used to be, but it is so fun to watch them becoming little people with their own personalities. They are aware of so much more than parents think sometimes. The great thing is that parents can use that awareness to already begin teaching their toddlers how to be aware of how they are being perceived, but not to worry so much about it that they rely on what other people think about them. That is a lesson you will be happy they learned early when you hit the pre-teen years.
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